What are Infant Reflexes?
All babies are born with a set of infant or primitive reflexes. They have around 70 inbuilt infant reflexes and these manifest as automatic responses to specific stimulation. This means that baby has no control over these movements.
Why do we need them?
Unlike almost any other animals a baby human is incapable of moving and looking after themselves. Infant reflexes are present to aid the birthing process and to help baby survive their first early months. As they build muscle control and balance these infant reflexes will be naturally replaced by more mature postural responses.
How are they replaced?
This replacement or inhibition happens once baby has started to gain control over some of these movements. When they have practised a movement often enough, by repeating and repeating it to perfect the motion, the infant reflexive response is inhibited. So, as with every element of your baby’s development, repetition is the key. Only by repeating a movement over and over can your baby develop the strong neural pathways they will need as the base for all subsequent learning.
Recognisable infant reflexes
A description of a few more recognisable reflexes.
A newborn baby will turn its head when their cheek or mouth is stroked to search for the breast. This reflex helps aid breastfeeding and can be present after birth for up to four months or until baby has gained some control over doing this movement voluntarily.
Is sometimes referred to the startle reflex and is present from birth until around two to four months old. If baby is startled by a swift movement, or loud noise, or even a change in temperature baby’s arms will shoot out to the side and legs shoot down, followed by arms coming back in again, fists clenching and baby crying. Thought to be a protective measure to help keep baby safe when mother would carry them (on backs).
Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex
Also know as the ‘fencing position’. When baby’s head looks to the left their left arm will straighten away from the body and right will bend in towards the body (right leg may also bend in). The opposite will happen when baby turns head to the right. Thought to aid birthing by helping baby twist down the birthing canal and subsequently helps with muscle development, hand eye coordination and integration of both sides of the body. This reflex is usually inhibited by six months, though can be seen during sleep for longer.
Can you help integrate these reflexes?
Movement and repetition are key to the integration of your baby’s reflexes. The more that the reflex is elicited, the more neurological control your baby will gain over this reflex and it will eventually become inhibited. Though this is a natural process it requires movement to make it happen.
Allow your baby plenty of time to play on their tummies with toys just out of reach, move and dance around the house together, and stretch out fingers while singing nursery rhymes. Babies both love and need to be moved (or given opportunities for movement) and in our modern, sedentary world we all need to encourage this for our babies' healthy development.